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A Passenger is NOT a phone

January 31, 2009

There have been enough studies to show that talking on the phone while driving impairs the driver. In fact, driving while talking on the phone is just about as debilitating as driving drunk. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re holding the phone or it’s hands-free, the problem is something inherent in the phone call.

Now contrast that with talking to someone in the car. Most of us drivers do that all the time, and I think you’d agree that especially on longer trips, you actually feel safer having a conversational companion. You feel more attentive and alert. Obviously, I’m ruling out the annoying passenger who is attempting to make you mad or tickle you, as well as trying to talk with your toddler in a rear facing safety seat strapped into the backseat of the car. I’m talking about a socially appropriate, intelligent passenger who is in the front seat and (here is the key) is aware of the second-to-second situations that you, the driver, are dealing with.

Think about it, you’re driving along and something surprising happens. Perhaps a fire truck is crossing an intersection against the light, or an animal runs onto the road ahead, suddenly all the brake lights on the cars ahead flash, your passenger reacts immediately even stopping in midsentence if they were speaking. They immediately enlist their eyes and ears and provide additional information like “there’s another fire truck coming on the right,” “here comes the dog that was chasing that cat,” “I think it’s icy up there.” Now contrast that to the phone call. You, the driver, are responsible not only for your driving crisis, but you must instruct the person on the other side of the phone to “hold on a second.” Considering the phone call from the non-driver’s-side, I’m sure many of us have had the experience of talking to someone who was dealing with some sort of minor driving crisis but the driver decided just to “keep talking through it.” You sensed that the conversation lost a little of its focus, and it’s likely that you used normal conversational techniques to try and regain the conversational focus. You might have said something like “are you saying that…” or “that’s a little vague…” and the result is that you have tasked the driver with more cognitive load at the exact instant that they needed to apply their attention to the crisis. It’s not your fault, you didn’t know. Talking on the phone while driving doesn’t make you crash, but it puts you at risk of being robbed of your cognitive skills when you most need them. Most of the time our driving experience is ordinary and uneventful, that’s probably why most drunk drivers make it to their destination without incurring catastrophe.

Sadly, most of the voice applications designed for the car today are just as bad, or even worse when it comes to cognitive load on the driver. They have no awareness of the driver’s situation. Even sadder, the designers of these applications opt for an interface of a few specific commands and rigid formalisms. Understandably they do this to overcome weaknesses in the speech recognition performance, but they also (and erroneously) believe that this small tight structure reduces the cognitive load on the driver. I know how I feel using such systems that force me to concentrate on “getting it right.” I have witnessed people who are involved with the application development trying to demonstrate it. They are sitting in a car that is parked at the auto show (on the carpet) and I watch their eyes glaze over when it doesn’t work and they stammer “I don’t remember the exact command.” I think about them careening down the highway in 2 tons of steel in that state of mind.

And here we come to Cassandra, your SA (Synthetic Agent) in the car. First of all, with small improvements in the microphone input, she is vastly better at recognizing your speech. And since she uses a sophisticated dialog management engine (her brain), she can engage in much more realistic conversations. She can ask for clarification, or suspend an activity in order to do something of higher priority first — she has a memory. Now, with all the instrumentation already in new cars (with much more to come), Cassandra can know when you “hit the brake” a little more abruptly than usual, or you turned the steering wheel a little more erratically than expected, or that your automatic traction control system has detected that it might be slippery. Maybe Cassandra even uses her own “ears” to recognize emergency vehicle sirens?

In the next few years cars will have more proximity sensors and they will know what’s in front, behind and alongside them. Most of us have had the experience of something surprising happening ahead on the road and our passenger said something like “the left lane is clear.” Cassandra could say that.

I’d like to have Cassandra in my car.